By Bethany Laursen, Stephen Crowley and Chad Gonnerman
Have you ever been part of a team confronting a moral dilemma? Or trying to manage deep disagreements? For that matter, on a more down-to-earth level, how many times has your team tried to settle an agreed file naming convention? Many team troubles arise from value pluralism—members having different values or holding the same values in different ways. Below, we describe problematic value pluralism and suggest steps for dealing with it.
What are values, and how do they cause problems?
Here, we’re talking about a “value” as a desire (conscious or unconscious) that directs a person’s actions. It could be a guiding ideal or a whimsical preference, for example. Most of us have multiple values and over time we have organized them so that they provide us with guidance in most of the situations we encounter.
Forming a team, especially one made up of folks with diverse backgrounds, creates the challenge of managing the interaction of multiple values. Each team member will bring their own set of values to the collaboration; these value sets, reflecting the backgrounds of the team’s members, will themselves be diverse. We call this situation “value pluralism.” Value pluralism is generally great for teamwork, especially on complex problems. It helps ensure you’re considering all sides of an issue, avoiding harms, and accessing all available resources.
But sometimes value pluralism can cause problems. Problems arise whenever the value differences lead the team to undermine norms that govern the project, even the simple norm of finishing the project. Very roughly, a team’s values should guide its actions in the right ways with the right outcomes, and problems arise when that guidance is missing or flawed. Here are some typical situations where value differences can undermine project norms:
- Values incoherence—the different values directly conflict.
- Pragmatic incoherence—the different values don’t direct actions clearly or they direct conflicting actions.
- Moral incoherence—the different values or resulting actions violate moral standards.
Values Incoherence Example
Juwan and Stacy are part of team working on the role of a component C in some larger system S. Juwan feels he really understands something only when he can describe how it works, but Stacy keeps drawing attention to final impacts, arguing that they don’t need to know what’s inside the ‘black box’ (how C works) to understand what’s happening (how C impacts S). This is an example of strong value pluralism, where values directly conflict in the sense that one person values something the other person doesn’t. Juwan values mechanisms while Stacy doesn’t. In a case like this the team is *not* getting guidance from its values.
Pragmatic Incoherence Example
Aang and Katara’s team is committed to transparency and accountability in their co-production work. So, they want to publish their work open access. However, the open access publication fee is much higher than their budget estimated to the funder. While Aang and Katara take both commitments seriously, Aang feels strongly that they should remain accountable to their original budget, which says they can’t afford to pay the fee. Katara in contrast feels compelled to pay the fee to maintain transparency in their research. In this case the team is getting conflicting guidance from its values.
Moral Incoherence Example
Azula and Mai’s team is leading a water quality study funded by a government contract. Both Azula and Mai want to fulfill the contract on time as specified so it will be renewed, but a concerned citizen tells them that several people in the community are noticing funny smells in their water. To investigate would take the team beyond the scope of the contract, but if they don’t follow up, people could be poisoned. Azula overrules Mai and forces the team to ignore the citizen’s concerns in order to fulfill the contract. In this case the team is getting bad guidance from its values.
These are all examples of what we call “problematically plural values.” Working through problematically plural values is not only necessary at the time but can also grow a team’s capacity for solving future problems.
Steps for dealing with problematically plural values
Here are the basic steps a team could follow if they suspect they have problematically plural values. Of course, “steps” is a bit misleading, as these might not be discrete or sequential in practice. But “steps” is helpful for understanding what needs to happen:
- Detection—Does your team suffer from problematically plural values?
- Identiﬁcation—What values do members of the team bring to the table?
- Determination—Do those values yield values, pragmatic, or moral incoherence?
- Coordination—What can your team do about problematically plural values?
- Give up—Dissolve the team
- Dodge—Change the research project in a way that avoids the problem
- Select—Adopt the (coherent) values of some subset of the team
- Compromise—Adopt a (coherent) selection of values from various team members
- Integrate—Create new (coherent) values from existing team values.
If a team chooses not to Give up or Dodge but rather to address its values by Selecting, Compromising, or Integrating, then there is more work to do:
- Articulating—Coordinating a set of shared values
- Recording—Making a record of those values
- Enacting—Carrying out those values
- Evaluating—Making sure the values are in operation and are effective.
It’s all easier said than done! Tools and approaches covered in blog posts about Toolbox Dialogue Initiative, the Circle of Dialogue Wisdom, the Gradients of Agreement, and many others can help with one or more of these steps. Still, there is no substitute for the wisdom of experience.
How have you dealt with problematically plural values? What lessons have you learned to share with others?
Find out more:
Laursen, B. K., Gonnerman, C. and Crowley, S. J. (2021). Improving philosophical dialogue interventions to better resolve problematic value pluralism in collaborative environmental science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science Part A, 87, 54–71. (Online) (DOI): https://doi.org/10.1016/j.shpsa.2021.02.004
This open access article includes more examples of values pluralism and an appendix of tools and the steps they are best suited to assist.
Biography: Bethany Laursen PhD studies, develops, uses, and evaluates tools that help people make sense of wicked problems. She is a member of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative, affiliate faculty with Michigan State University’s Center for Interdisciplinarity, and Assistant Dean in the Graduate School at Michigan State University in the USA. Bethany also maintains a consultancy called Laursen Evaluation & Design, LLC.
Biography: Stephen Crowley PhD is chair of the Philosophy Department at Boise State University, Idaho, USA. He is also a member of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative. He helps facilitate team science projects (as part of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative) in a variety of areas as well as working on models of such collaborations and how to support them.
Biography: Chad Gonnerman PhD is an Associate Professor of Philosophy and the Philosophy Program Coordinator at the University of Southern Indiana in the USA, in addition to being a member of the Toolbox Dialogue Initiative. He has written on the structural nature of concepts, methodology of relying on philosophical intuitions, error-possibility effects on lay attributions of knowledge, the everyday concept of knowledge-how, and philosophy’s ability to enhance cross-disciplinary research, among others.